Eastern Division police officers regularly visit homeless encampments.
Homelessness was the subject of the November 24 Allied Gardens–Grantville Community Council town hall hosted by the council and the San Diego Police Department. Residents' questions were answered by three members of the SDPD’s Eastern Division: captain Bernie Colon, lieutenant Mike Swanson, and community relations officer Adam McElroy. (Swanson elaborated on some topics in a post-forum interview.)
Officers Adam McElroy and Mike Swanson
According to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless 2015 WeALL Count campaign, there are 5538 homeless people in the city of San Diego and 2765 of them are unsheltered. Men represent 70 percent of the unsheltered; 28 percent are women and 2 percent are transgender.
Swanson spoke about Eastern Division’s quality-of-life team, which he called "collateral duty." The beat started in May and is based on a format Swanson brought from Northern Division. When first watch begins at 6 a.m., two officers spend from two to three hours at encampments. Their destinations are often based on residents' information. "They give us the issue; we respond to the issue," Swanson said.
Officers issue citations, check for warrants, and may make arrests. Police take action on activities including fires, trash accumulation, and illegal lodgings. Prohibited lodgings include protected land around the San Diego River and private property.
View from Friars Road bridge near San Diego River; roof of Armstrong Garden Center on right
Swanson said other encampment locations include canyons, behind buildings like the Home Depot on Fairmount Avenue, and Allied Gardens Park.
Council president Anthony Wagner said "another hotbed" is the Friars Road bridge near Filippi's Pizza Grotto. Wagner spoke about people with shopping carts and liquor bottles and said breweries weren't to blame. "It would be nice to have a program to advise retailers not to sell to serial inebriates."
Swanson said police couldn't do that. Jim Akin, cofounder of Benchmark Brewing Co., said serial inebriates aren't going to pay $5 for a beer, and "we're not going to sell to them."
A woman said she walked in Del Cerro at 5 a.m. and asked what to do when she saw people in two cars take items from city-provided containers on "recycling day. Later, I saw them unloading [recyclables at the center in the] Windmill Farms" parking lot.
McElroy said removing items is theft, and "the city is the victim." He recommended sending an online report to the Environmental Services Department.
Colon said median panhandling is legal unless the solicitor steps into the roadway or is aggressive. For intoxication to be an arrestable offense, Swanson said, "They have to be so drunk they can't take care of themselves."
He also referred to the clearing out of homeless encampments in Chaparral Canyon, which is south of Lake Murray Dam and north of westbound Interstate 8. The canyon is also located off the 6700- 6900 blocks of Del Cerro Boulevard.
Earlier this year, residents posted canyon concerns on nextdoor.com. McElroy wrote June 3 that police arrested "two more people" there on June 2 and were interested in speaking to the driver of a black 1996 Dodge truck. He gave the license-plate number and wrote that the driver "may be parking…above the canyon. This activity is most likely related to the theft from vehicles in the area."
McElroy reported that police on June 3 contacted the last four people in the canyon, and the truck owner was taken "into custody for an outstanding warrant."
Notice posted during June enforcement action in Chaparral Canyon
Liz Saidkhanian of 7th District councilman Scott Sherman's office said in a November 25 email that residents' concerns were brought to the councilman's attention in June. He fast-tracked clearing out the canyon, according to Saidkhanian's June 15 email to the Del Cerro council. On November 25, Saidkhanian provided photographs of the June clear-out and said, "There have been over nine canyon cleanouts over the past couple of months."
Swanson said clearing encampments is like "whack-a-mole. Police take care of one, and they migrate to another canyon, hillside, or behind a business."